Friday, June 26, 2009

Sports programs give disabled vets new goals

From The Sacramento Bee:

Joshua Rodriguez served and survived five tours overseas in the U.S. Marine Corps. Injured twice, he had to relearn to walk and talk and to use his right hand.

However, all that pales in comparison to relearning how to live a life he left almost nine years ago – a life devoid of painful memories and accidents and roadside bomb explosions, a life where he is able to pursue his dreams.

"It's become my goal to forget about the past and move forward," said the lance corporal. "I just want to be normal."

Last week, Rodriguez and 15 other veterans received lessons that have helped other disabled veterans achieve this dream.

The program required the 16 to engage body and mind in outdoor sports activities such as whitewater rafting, water-skiing, handcycling and sled hockey. All hope these activities will aid them in their recovery and transition.

"Sports are a vehicle to a positive self-image and achieving attitude," said Doug Pringle, a Vietnam veteran and the president of Disabled Sports USA Far West, the founding chapter of Disabled Sports USA. The group sponsored the week's events and teaches disabled individuals how to stay active and participate in sports despite disabilities.

"We literally walk the wards in military hospitals and recruit people to participate," Pringle said, noting that Vietnam veterans with disabilities often act as the instructors for wounded veterans.

For Pringle, it began when he lost a leg in Vietnam in 1968. He can still remember lying in his hospital bed as he was approached by a group of World War II veterans, he said. They told him they wanted to take him skiing.

"I thought they were nuts," Pringle said. "But skiing became the first thing I did that made me think about what I could do instead of what I couldn't."

A new generation of veterans is returning from the Middle East with pictures on their cell phones and iPods of Baghdad sunsets and the aftermath of raids. Medical experts say they also return with polytrauma – a condition characterized as having multiple traumatic injuries.

"In past wars, you would come back and maybe have one disability," said Susan Feighery, an Army veteran and lead recreational therapist for the Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program in Palo Alto. "If you have one disability, you're able to address it and move on to, hopefully, find an occupation and live your life.

"But polytrauma is a whole new thing because if you have a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, you can't remember what techniques you need to use to ground yourself and control it."

She said many returning veterans are also particularly hard to treat and diagnose because they are trained never to quit.

"As a therapist, part of what you have to learn about these guys is we have to ask them, 'Are you "Marine OK" or are you "human being OK?" ' " Feighery said. "They will never admit they're not doing OK."

Never saying die comes with the territory when you're a Marine. Rodriguez, like many other men and women in uniform, was deployed five times – a number that was almost unheard-of in past wars but is becoming more commonplace as military resources are stretched to their limits.

His fifth deployment came after Rodriguez had already suffered a roadside bomb explosion in 2003.

"It knocked me unconscious," said Rodriguez, a Stockton native. "Then they put me on the back of a truck and got me out of there."

The bomb injured his hand but did not render him unfit for service. He was redeployed to Iraq in 2006. He says he can still remember the day he received the news.

"I was scared shitless," he said. "It's not because you're scared to die or scared because you don't have the training. We're all well- prepared. But you're always scared when you find out you're going over there."

Soon after he arrived in Iraq for the last time, a freak tire explosion caused the vehicle Rodriguez was riding in to crash. The accident aggravated his previous injuries and left Rodriguez with a traumatic brain injury that made walking and talking difficult.

He was sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., before being transferred to Palo Alto Veterans Association Hospital, where he underwent most of his recovery.

Today, Rodriguez is trying to look forward. He wants to join a sled hockey team after trying it for the first time with the Disabled Sports USA program, and he wants eventually to go back to school and become a speech pathologist for veterans.

"It's so much easier when a guy has been there and knows where you're coming from," he said. "For vets, it's much easier to accept help from someone like you."

Staying active and engaging in a team-related activity like sled hockey, Rodriguez said, is just one step toward achieving the kind of normal life he dreams of.

"When you participate in a sport or an activity, you see that you can achieve greatness despite your disability," Pringle added. "There's nothing like it. The feeling that you can ski or play a sport or something regardless of your disability – it's like freedom."